Beholding the Void: An Interview with Philip Fracassi

It’s an absolute honor to announce that Philip Fracassi, author of the widely esteemed collection Behold the Void, declared “Short Story Collection of the Year” by This Is Horror UK, as well as the novellas Fragile Dreams, Sacculina, and the eagerly-anticipated Shiloh, is gracing the ranks of our ever-growing author interview series. Be sure to visit Fracassi’s beautiful website, and join the newsletter for updates on the slew of upcoming releases mentioned at the end of this interview. If you’ve enjoyed the writers featured here so far, then you certainly don’t want to miss out on Fracassi. Enjoy.

“I want readers to be entertained, and I want them to be moved. While it’s great to have my stuff bought and read, what really makes it worthwhile is hearing feedback from readers about how a story impacted them in a bigger way […] I want the story to be an experience remembered, not just empty calories.”

-Philip Fracassi

Justin A. Burnett: You recently released Shiloh, a work set during one of the most famous battles of the Civil War. I think readers may find themselves happily surprised by this unusual setting (both unusual for you, and the horror/weird community in general, as far as I can tell). What inspired you to locate your story here?

Philip Fracassi: I was inspired not so much by the locale or the war itself as I was by a little-known anecdote about the battle of Shiloh. Apparently, during one of the nights of the battle a few of the soldiers who were wounded started to GLOW. Specifically, their wounds were glowing a bright, luminescent green color. Not only that, but the soldiers who were glowing were healing faster than was considered normal. They nicknamed the phenomenon “Angel Glow” for its healing properties and strange lighting effect. This is factual record, mind you. Anyway, about a hundred years later some high school kids did a science project about it and discovered the glow was caused by a bacterium carried by insects. Regardless, I’d always been fascinated by the legend and decided to run with it. It’s only a part of what happens in the story, but it got my mind going on the “how’s” and “why’s” of that battle. Then, the more I read up on the battle and its horrors and the degree to which it was a blood-bath, I became more and more fascinated and eager to work in that sandbox. I did an absolute ton of research, read a few first-hand accounts, and hopefully got most of the facts right, from the weapons used to the battle formations to the overall strategy of the armies. It was fun but exhausting and it’ll be a while before I do another period piece, but I’m happy with the way this one turned out.

Burnett: You anticipated my next question. My brother is an absolute civil war expert, and I picked up a little of this merely by proximity. I think you succeeded wonderfully on recapturing the intensity of battle. I think a lot of people watch the reenactments without getting a sense of what it must’ve been like to be there in the midst of it. Was this your first research-intensive writing project?

Fracassi: Oh no—not by a long shot. All my stories are exhaustively researched. I think stories like “The Baby Farmer” and Sacculina come to mind as ones that were especially heavy on the research front. “The Horse Thief” as well. Any time I step into a world or write about a topic I’m not definitively familiar with, I always spend days or weeks researching the details I’m writing about for accuracy. It’s actually a really fun part of the process. With Shiloh, I think it just became a lot more than I’d bargained for—there are so many details that need to be verified for a period war piece. Everything from the formations of the troops to the vernacular of that time to the guns and ammunition to the types of underwear the soldiers wore. It’s one thing to write about parasitic barnacles, it’s quite another to realistically recreate a battle that took place over a hundred years ago.

Burnett: I can definitely appreciate the sheer volume of material out there one would have to sift through to recreate the battle of Shiloh. I applaud you for it. I think lot of writers in the horror community would just toss it together. But your level of detail is not at all surprising to me, since one of my favorite aspects of your work is the obvious level of care you put into the craft. This extends to what I would call the “classic” Fracassi story, “The Soda Jerk,” featured in Shiloh. It’s an absolutely gorgeous piece. Did anything in particular inspire this one?

Fracassi: Oh, well thanks very much. The idea of “Soda Jerk” stemmed from the idea of creating a larger world of fiction to play within. I had the idea of doing a series of stories about a small, nondescript, mid-century American town called Sabbath. The plan was to do a series of novellas that would ultimately culminate in one large book—a serial, to be precise. While the serial may or may not come to fruition, I have begun work on additional stories and characters, along with a plot arc, for that world. “Soda Jerk” is a sort of preface to that longer story arc, ergo the “A Sabbath Story” tag. There’s also a story in my collection called “Soft Construction of a Sunset” that takes place in the same small town. The idea of Sabbath is that it’s a place where strange and supernatural things occur due to the infestation of cosmic creatures that harbor there. Hopefully, the full story will come to light one day, possibly as a novel or the aforementioned serial project.

Burnett: That would be fantastic. You submerge the reader into the little town of Sabbath quite nicely, and it feels like a world rich for exploration, like Welcome to Night Vale, except richer and more serious. I called “The Soda Jerk” classic Fracassi because it establishes a relatively normal setting which gets ripped out from under the protagonist’s feet. You have a serious ability to suck the reader into a pretty straightforward plot before pummeling them with something horrific. Shiloh seems to depart from this model in that the “action” is intense from the beginning. The “horror” doesn’t come exclusively from “outside” the normal world but is very much part of both the supernatural and realistic element alike. Was this a conscious departure on your behalf? Did writing it feel different to you?

Fracassi: I do have a tendency to engage readers in an “everyday” scenario with characters that readers can hopefully empathize with or relate to in some fashion, and then, yeah, sorta infuse the story with horror and/or the supernatural. I don’t know why I do this, but I don’t think it’s conscious. Even stories I’ve written that have not been released yet—a couple on a Ferris Wheel, a cornfield church wedding—tend to take common, or “normal” situations and turn them upside down. I certainly wasn’t thinking about Shiloh being a departure from this, but in a way I’d say it’s similar because while the battle is certainly bloody and horrible, it’s still very “real”… at least until the supernatural stuff shows up and takes the story in a very different direction. On one hand I certainly don’t want to be pigeon-holed into this kind of setup, but on the other hand it’s a lot of fun and I think creates a nice impact for the reader. That said, I’ll likely try to shake things up a bit moving forward. Don’t want to telegraph my punches too much.

Burnett: I feel less like it’s a pigeonhole and more like it, as you say, “creates a nice impact.” I still never know what I’m getting into with one of your releases. I remember being blown away by Altar, which is kind of the pinnacle of that setup.

If you were to sum up your artistic goal as a writer, what would that look like? What are you trying to do with your unique and thoughtful version of cosmic horror?

Fracassi: In regards to goals, I think that’s a still-developing target. A couple years ago, my goal was simply to get something—anything—published. Then my goal was to build on that and get more out there and build a readership base. Then it was to have a collection. So, it’s hard to say what the endgame is, because I’m always looking at the next rung on that ladder and striving to reach it. Right now, I’d say my goal as an artist is to get a novel out into the world. I’m still writing screenplays and short stories, however, so a novel is a big undertaking and would mean putting the other stuff on hold. But I have one that’s being shopped around, and I’m hoping that in the next 12-18 months I’ll be able to announce a novel and a 2nd story collection release. But, as I said, I’m also working on multiple screen projects, so it’s really hard to prioritize. It’ll be interesting to see what the next year brings. In the meantime, I’m gonna keep my nose down and work my ass off.

In regards to the art of creating stories, my goals are very simple. I want readers to be entertained, and I want them to be moved. While it’s great to have my stuff bought and read, what really makes it worthwhile is hearing feedback from readers about how a story impacted them in a bigger way, created a new memory that is forever lodged in their brain. That’s why I always try to make my characters memorable and three-dimensional, and why my prose is probably a bit more dense or poetic than a lot of horror writers, because I want the story to be an experience remembered, not just empty calories. At least in a best-case scenario.

Burnett: I personally think you absolutely achieve this, at least given the way your work has stood out to me over these relatively few years. Regarding your initial goal, were you surprised by how quickly your initial publications found an audience?

Fracassi: I was! I mean, you’re talking to a guy who has been writing his whole life. I’ve written three novels and over a hundred short stories–all literary—and tried for YEARS to get published or find an agent, etc. Bupkus. So, to dip my toe in the horror genre (with my short story “Mother”) and get accepted to the first publisher I sent it to was mind-blowing. And then to get mentored by Laird Barron—one of my literary heroes—and get the early support of folks like Paul Tremblay, Adam Nevill, Ted Grau… I mean, it boggled my mind. Totally surreal. And I was pleased that reviewers enjoyed the story, and it got a small readership which was amazing to me. But then Altar came out and the whole thing sort of exploded. Suddenly, all these people were reading my work and seemed to actually ENJOY the work… it was crazy. So since then I’ve just worked hard to keep putting stuff out and doing my best to create the stories I’ve fallen in love with and just hope that people like them. The reality is that when you get to a certain “level” (I hate that word but it’s the only one that fits), you get hit with a dose of reality—you realize that there’s a big, bad world out there that doesn’t care about your hundreds or even thousands of readers, and that if you want to make an honest-to-goodness living doing this sort of thing, you need to adjust your sights and aim a LOT higher, which is sad and daunting at the same time. I miss the early epiphanies of getting published and having my stories chatted about on social media… and while it’s still incredibly fun to achieve those things, I’ve had to adjust my expectations and my goals, and in some ways the work itself. It’s a big-time reality check. I think a lot of writers hit this same wall… I mean, you’re kind of like walking down this golden road, laughing and singing just as—BAM—this looming black wall slams down in your path and you’re like “oh shit!” So you can either start climbing that sucker or you can stay on the road you’ve been on… and it’s not an easy decision to make. Me? I’m climbing. I don’t know if I’ll get to what’s behind it, but I’m gonna try. I know that’s a long-winded answer, but I hope it reflects how a writing career can quickly evolve. It’s incredibly taxing mentally and emotionally, but you just keep doing your best to find readers and publishers who want your work and try to keep building on that.

Burnett: I seem to gravitate towards writers with one foot in horror and another in literary fiction. Is there a chance of your older literary work surfacing now that you find yourself accepted in the horror world?

Fracassi: I think whatever “training” I had writing lit fiction was evident from my first story. I take pride in the prose as much as I do the story. Not that it always succeeds (ditto for the stories), but the effort is there to make the words count for something other than relaying the plot. But it has to contribute. No purple prose, etc. Sometimes, though, it really helps create a sensation or help attain an emotional or visceral response from a reader to write a certain way—using certain words, or phrases… you can create a lot of dread without actually having anything dreadful necessarily happening. This has been fairly effective for me based on some of the reader response I’ve received. Altar is a great example where nothing bad is happening—just a family going to the community pool on a sunny afternoon—but the reader still gets a strong sense of dread or fear simply by the way I describe things. Folks like Laird Barron are pros at this sort of thing, and Brian Evenson, who creates a wonderful sense of detachment, or a better word might be “incertitude,” at what’s occurring. These can be just effective as a scary plot at disturbing and disorienting a reader

Burnett: You mentioned Barron and Evenson, two writers who also add a strong literary twist to the horror genre. Are there any more like them you feel you share a particular affinity with?

Fracassi: That’s an interesting question, and one I’ve given a lot of thought to. It’s always a warm fuzzy feeling to have comparable writers you can associate with in order to help readers get a grasp on what you’re giving them… but honestly, I’ve had a hard time. There is a large quadrant of “new weird” writers out there really tearing things up—guys like Michael Wehunt and Kristi DeMeester and Nadia Bulkin. And then there are folks doing things completely original, like Jon Padgett and Matthew Bartlett. I think Brian Evenson stands pretty outside the box as a “weird” horror writer who is able to create things with language not many writers can accomplish. I suppose he’s akin somewhat to Robert Aickman? And then Barron is a force on his own, and is really not comparable to any other modern writer, although he came up with other greats like Paul Tremblay, S.P. Miskowski, John Langan and Stephen Graham Jones. Then there’s the old-school guys—Straub, McCammon, King, Koontz, Laymon, Ketchum—who all had their unique styles but are still definitively of a period… but still it’s not a perfect fit. I think if I had to pick a couple modern writers to associate with, it’d be folks like Josh Malerman, Nathan Ballingrud, Jeffrey Ford. But I really can’t say with any certainty because, frankly, I haven’t done enough! I don’t even have a novel out there yet! To answer a slightly different way, I would say that there are writers whose careers I’d like to emulate—authors like Adam Nevill, Ronald Malfi, Malerman,Tremblay… guys who are pumping out a horror novel every year, just like they used to do with King, Laymon, John Farris, Bentley Little and Koontz. So, to answer your question, I don’t feel like I’m part of any current group of modern horror writers. I think I’m sorta doing my own thing, which is a little lonely! I don’t get into a lot of anthologies, and don’t make many of the award lists… but if the readers are there? That’s all that matters.

Burnett: You mentioned shopping around a possible new collection and a novel earlier. Are there any details you want your readers to know about these?

Fracassi: There aren’t a ton of details at this time regarding the novel or the 2nd collection, other than to say the novel is “throwback” horror with all the tropes sort of tossed together and pushed into a new direction, and the collection will likely consist of at least 1-2 of my current novellas plus the stories I’ve published over the last year in places like Dark Discoveries Magazine and anthologies like Test Patterns and A Walk on the Weird Side. Plus 1-2 new things, I’m sure.

As far as my current slate, I’ll have a reprint in Best Horror of the Year Vol. 10 coming in June, then an original novella called Overnight coming from Unnerving Press in July, then I’ll appear in a couple unannounced anthologies, and finally another new novella called The Wheel from Cemetery Dances in early 2019. My collection, Behold the Void, will also be translated into a Spanish edition coming in October of this year, and a Czech edition coming late this year or early 2019. So lot’s going on. Fingers crossed that I’ll have news on the collection and/or the novel by the end of the year. I have a newsletter folks can subscribe to, or you can follow my blog. All of it is available at my author site.

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